When Mitchell Richards left school at the age of 16, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He went through a succession of jobs – plastering, working in a clothes shop, serving in McDonald’s – all the while supporting his older brother, Nathan, who has Down syndrome. At no point did Mitchell consider that what he was doing for Nathan might in fact be the answer to his career dilemma.
Until 2013, that is, when Mitchell went to work on a summer camp in Seattle for young people with learning disabilities. “That was the turning point for me,” says Mitchell, now 23, from Tonypandy, who has been shortlisted in the Most Inspirational Student Nurse of the Year category at the Student Nursing Times Awards 2019. “I learned so much about the cultural differences between the UK and the USA in terms of healthcare, and realised that we were far more advanced in the UK in terms of legislation and accessibility. I decided that when I returned to Wales, I wasn’t going to go back to working at McDonald’s, but I would do something involved with learning disabilities.”
Mitchell went on to work for Cartrefi Cymru and the Priory Group, organisations providing support for people with learning disabilities, before starting a mental health nursing degree at Swansea University. “At the Priory Group I’d worked with young adults with autism. There were a few individuals there with dual diagnosis, in other words a learning disability and a mental health disorder, and there wasn’t enough support for them. Their mental health was deteriorating but we were focusing instead on supporting their learning disability. That had a huge influence in terms of deciding which degree course I was going to do. I wanted to educate others in the mental health field about learning disabilities. The best way of doing that, from what I could see, was to branch off down the mental health route in terms of what I wanted to study. You know, change things from within.”
The first year of Mitchell’s course saw him take on a clinical placement as a student nurse working for the Paul Ridd Foundation, a Port Talbot-based organisation which supports people with learning disabilities together with their families and carers. Mitchell has maintained his close links to the Foundation, a source of inspiration to his own brother, and was recently appointed as a trustee. Once his degree is completed this summer, he aims to devote even more time to the organisation, both in terms of fundraising and helping to train learning disability champions.
“The Paul Ridd Foundation is a massive motivation for myself and for Nathan,” says Mitchell. “It’s well documented that 1200 people with learning disabilities die avoidably every year within the NHS system. That’s terrible. The Paul Ridd Foundation wants to change that. I want to change that. I want every individual with a learning disability, including my own brother, to receive equal healthcare within a hospital setting.
“I’m humbled to have been nominated, let alone shortlisted, for this award,” he adds. “I’m not really the kind of person who goes looking for recognition, so it has come as a bit of a shock. I can’t wait to meet the other shortlisted nominees at the awards to hear more about their own amazing stories.”